Medieval Tourism with Amy: Medieval (and early modern) Stuff in Morocco

Look, I’m pretty much incapable of going anywhere without looking for the local medieval things to gawp at. Morocco has some pretty good medieval things to gawp at. Also, it has sunshine in January, which was a large part of my motivation in going there in the first place.

Observe:

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El Badi palace, Marrakech

This here Saadian palace was built in the late 16th c and demolished in the 17th. It was built by sultan Ahmad al-Mansur: the pavilion still standing to the right of this picture was his audience pavilion; the one on the left was dedicated to his chief concubine; just out of view and now destroyed was his personal retiring pavilion (he did not live in this palace for the most part), and off to the bottom right were guest pavilions for hosting embassies. The guest accomodation was sunk below garden level, and surrounded by tall thick walls – this made it much cooler than outside by orders of magnitude.

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El Badi palace from just above the gardens

This shot, from just above the sunken gardens, shows the strange condition of the walls: I believe the holes were used to affix marble cladding, which was subsequently looted by Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th to clad his new palace in Meknes.

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The Pavilion of Fifty Cubits, with its under-floor irrigation system exposed.

El Badi has been restored by a joint team from Morocco and one of the Spanish universities, so it is quite well signposted and has a little exhibition room as well. Less well-curated were the Saadian Tombs, built by the same al-Mansur. There were renovations going on in the gardens, which were quite well maintained, but very little signage in the actual tomb complex.

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Inside the Saadian tombs

There was no signage whatsoever near this room, but from the layout I’d hazard that that recess contains Ahmad al-Mansur’s sarcophagus, which would make the three in the outer room his most trusted Jewish advisors. His eldest son has a separate room, and the rest of his family were further away, but signage in el Badi* palace informed me that buried closest to al-Mansur were a select coterie of Jewish advisors. The Jewish quarter in Marrakech is very close to the Kasbah quarter, apparently al-Mansur’s doing.

  • Using el for the palace and al for the sultan is making me twitch, but the palace was consistently referred to in English and French as el Badi, whereas the sultan’s name was given with the standard transliteration al-Mansur.

Casablanca had no medieval things to gawp at – it was a pretty tiny village until the French colonial expansion – but it did have a gorgeous coastline. Behold:

 

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Hassan II mosque seen from along the coast.

Fez, now Fez had interesting medieval stuff. It has the oldest university in the world, al-Karouine, which is not open to non-Muslims. I and my companion tried valiantly to find the front doors and photograph them, but to no avail.

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The Merenid tombs above Fez (late 13th or 14th c)

We did succeed in finding the Merenid tombs, which were imposing and tomb-like, as promised.

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Merenid tombs and the hills beyond

And there was also Borj Nord, a 16th c fortress erected by the same Ahmad al-Mansur of above, to keep an eye on the rebellious city of Fez (his Saadian predecessor had taken the city, but the locals were not particularly co-operative).

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Borj Nord and the Fez Medina beyond

Fez has a very, very big medina. We did find the Ville Nouvelle, but it was boring and slightly creepy (no women to be seen in any of the cafes, although plenty coming and going on the streets), so we did not stay.

Somewhere in the medina we found the al-Attarine madrasa, a 14th c foundation that once housed students from the university.

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Al-Attarine Madrasa: 14th c with 19th c renovations and some modern conservation efforts.

Some effort had been made toward conservation, but this – perhaps even more than the Saadian tombs – really made me wish some generous benefactor would pay to have it done over as a slice-of-life museum.

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Courtyard of al-Attarine Madrasa from one of the upper floors.

I only got up to the middle floor here, but it seems like all the student cells are intact: tiny little cubicles , opening onto the courtyard or the aisles above it. The courtyard must have filled up at prayer time – one whole wall (the one in the first picture) is taken up with showcasing the mihrab.

I have no grand conclusion here, but observe: there are interesting medieval and early modern things in Morocco.

 

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